Thursday

4th Mar 2021

Opinion

Time for a more coherent voice

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago the talk was of the European Union ‘fading away,' as China and India began to assume more importance on the world stage. Even Joschka Fischer, Foreign Minister in Gerhard Schroeder's former coalition government, was asking ominously ‘where is Europe?'

If such expressions coincided with the EU's 50th anniversary, the 51st, a week or two back, found us in better shape. Thanks to a strong currency and vibrant economy, Europe is on its feet again, weathering the global financial storms. Unemployment across the Union is down by almost three-quarters of a per cent, compared to a year ago. The great task of institutional reform is practically complete; ratification of the Lisbon treaty being all but assured. We look forward, later this year, to the arrival of the first European President and Foreign Minister.

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  • "There is a continued absence of any long term perspective about the future shape of the European Union" (Photo: Wikipedia)

No one is asking now ‘where is Europe?' We are no longer the ghost at the table, a vacant place setting. No one doubts today that we are here, in economic substance, even if we are still not fully pulling our weight in terms of influence. Our partners know that there are still many areas in which we still have to struggle to live up to our own ideals as well as equipping us to compete against the upcoming super-giants of Asia.

One is democracy. We may be about to announce the arrival of a European President and Foreign Minister but the idea that there should be some democratic input, whether directly or through the European Parliament, to determine who holds these positions is still anathema to member states. Moreover, the European Parliament still cannot manage to control where it sits.

Nor can Europeans debate European issues with one another. Despite the attention of the European Commission, attempts to create a genuine European wide political debate are still in their infancy. Events of European dimension are still viewed and reported in a national context

A second lacuna is the continuing absence of any long term perspective (or even debate) about the future shape of the European Union. This embraces not just the future boundaries of the Union, but its machinery of government as well. We continue to address the future on an ad hoc basis. The Lisbon Treaty is not yet ratified, but we know that current enlargement policies will require further constitutional change.

Despite recent turbulence in the Western Balkans no-one seriously doubts today that the entire region has a European future. Sooner rather than later, unless one or more countries deliberately turns its back, another seven countries will therefore be joining the Union in the medium term. This was not entirely evident a year ago.

Question marks remain over Turkey (despite its official candidate status), the Caucasus and the Ukraine. As so often within the EU, opinions are divided. But it seems more likely than not that all these countries will eventually join, which, with the probable accession also of Belarus, Moldova and perhaps Switzerland too, will bring the size of the Union to 42 states.

I say it seems likely that these countries will eventually join because, in the absence of any settled consensus to the contrary, events will make it progressively harder to resist their inclusion - if indeed that were what we wanted to do. Unless someone pulls the communication cord the train will continue to the buffers.

Just such an event is NATO membership. As I write NATO is meeting in Bucharest to determine, among other things, whether the Ukraine and Georgia should be allowed to take their first steps towards NATO membership. As the USA is in favour my guess is that sooner or later they will be admitted, despite objections from a number (as might be expected there is no single view) of European states. If the Ukraine and Georgia are part of the NATO family, and the EU continues to replace NATO forces in local peacekeeping operations, it seems NATO membership will come to represent a foot in the door to EU accession.

Here of course we see in miniature the third area on which the EU has shown little sign of moving forward during the past year. Were the Europe Union to be united on whether the Ukraine and Georgia should or shouldn't become members of NATO, that would constitute a powerful voice. But the EU is not united.

In fact it is far from united on a great range of foreign policy issues as a result of which its voice on the world stage is weak and inhibited. Because the EU's common foreign policy has to be settled unanimously, it is common only to the extent that it is the policy to which no one has found a reason to object. In consequence the policy is feeble.

Instead of speaking with a single strong voice, the EU speaks with many weak ones. The result is that nobody's interest is served. Most recently we have seen this split over whether we should recognise Kosovo, but on practically every dimension of foreign policy the Union is divided. Sometimes, as over Tibet, the need for unanimity produces pusillanimity; at other times it produces no policy at all, so we leave situations - such as divided Cyprus - to fester.

Had Europe been prepared to speak with a single voice over Iraq - the fifth anniversary of whose invasion we have just commemorated - who doubts that events on the ground might have been very different, regardless of whether that voice had been for or against an invasion.

Will the advent of an EU Foreign Minister - or even an EU President - correct this situation, produce more agreement? It may produce a small change, but nothing significant is likely to happen without the realisation by member states that their interests are better served by a single strong foreign and security policy operating in the common interest, than by each operating as though they alone had legitimate foreign policy concerns.

Of course this will involve significant sacrifices in the common interest, but they will be sacrifices worth making. Not so much a question of giving away one's sovereign right to make foreign policy as the recognition that making policy is useless without the means to see it through. Pooling sovereignty, tackling such issues on a majority basis, provides the only way of regaining influence already lost. Europe has been in a shambles for too long.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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